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Big Bill Broonzy

Blues musician Big Bill Broonzy served as an ambassador sharing the blues with international audiences across Europe and influencing famous artists Sonny Boy Williamson II, Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Eric Clapton with his unique, unmatched blues style.

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According to recent research, William Lee Conley Bradley, better known as Big Bill Broonzy, was born on June 29, 1903, to Frank Broonzy Bradley and Mittie Belcher near Lake Dick, Arkansas, just 18 minutes east of Pine Bluff. Throughout his career as a blues musician, Broonzy claimed to have been born in Scott, Mississippi on June 26, 1893, while other sources claim he was born in 1898. What remains undisputed about his early life is that he was one of seventeen siblings raised on a sharecropping plantation. Broonzy grew up near Pine Bluff and began performing music at a young age. He learned to play a homemade violin, he started playing spirituals and folk songs at social events and church functions.

Broonzy claimed to have joined the U.S. Army in 1917 and fought in France. He was 14 years old during the First World War and no record of his draft exists. He would later offer rich details in writings and interviews of the harsh degrading conditions black soldiers faced during their time in the army and upon their return to the United States. These stories were likely cobbled together from the accounts of returning veterans. In meticulously researching Broonzy’s life for his 2011 biography   I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy, Chicago-based author Bob Reisman, found that Broonzy had a talent for rewriting the facts of his life history with essences of the truth gathered from listening to the plight of other poor, rural African Americans from the South. In 2012, when asked about Broonzy Riesman told the Arkansas Times that “He made a decision to use himself, his family, and others in the world that he grew up in and came from in Jefferson County, Arkansas, as ways of conveying to primarily white audiences the story of the African American experience in this country, particularly in the first half of the 20th century.” 

In the early 1920s, Broonzy moved to Chicago, Illinois. He quickly realized he could get more work by playing the guitar. So Papa Charlie Jackson, a popular blues singer and instrumentalist, taught him how to play the guitar, and he switched instruments. Broonzy connected with influential individuals like Georgia Tom Dorsey, Jazz Gillum, Lil Green, State Street Boys, Washboard Sam, and Memphis Nighthawks who provided him with recording opportunities with numerous blues musicians and ensembles. These connections allowed him to record under the Paramount, Columbia, Bluebird, Okeh, and Chess record labels. There are numerous compilations of Broonzy’s records, the most comprehensive of which is a twelve-volume anthology produced by Document Records in 1994. 

During his career, Broonzy combined his country blues with elements of ragtime, vaudeville, jazz, and hokum to produce a blended, unique form of the blues that would influence artists like Willie Dixon and his protege Muddy Waters, who later described him as the nicest guy he’d ever met in his life.

In 1938, Broonzy got his big break when producer John Hammond asked him to appear at the legendary From Spirituals To Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Ironically, Broonzy replaced the recently deceased Robert Johnson. Later releases of compilations of Johnson’s music would cause a resurgence of interest in blues music and singers like Broonzy when they were all but forgotten.

The fame that followed the concert led to a follow-up concert in 1939. It firmly established Broonzy as a giant on the blues scene. He recorded more than 300 songs and his newfound popularity carried him into the 1940s. 

In the early 1950s, Broonzy became an ardent supporter of the folk-blues as the electric blues rose in popularity. He felt it was his duty to serve as an ambassador bringing the blues to audiences around the world. In 1951, Broonzy toured Europe introducing the blues to European audiences just as skiffle and rock blues gained popularity in London. 

Broonzy’s success touring Europe would later set the stage for blues artists like Sonny Boy Williamson II, Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee to follow in his footsteps playing at European venues. Bert Jansch, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Steve Howe, Rory Gallagher, Eric Clapton, and Ronnie Wood, musicians who developed during this blues boom that followed his European tour have cited Broonzy as their inspiration.

In 1955, Broonzy published his autobiography Big Bill Blues with the help of Belgian writer Yannick Bruynoghe.In 1955 and 1957, Broonzy toured Europe once again. 

Shortly after his final tour in 1957, Broonzy was diagnosed with throat and lung cancer. Between July 12 and 14 1957, Broonzy recorded the Last Sessions, which featured nearly 10 hours of him playing, singing, and talking. 

On August 14, 1958, he died in Chicago. His funeral featured a hymn sung by gospel great Mahalia Jackson. Broonzy’s pallbearers included famous black and white figures like Muddy Waters, Tampa Red, Studs Terkel, and Chicago folk legend Win Stracke. It was an image of racial harmony deliberately designed to reflect the life Broonzy lived, the persona he created, and the songs he sang. 

He was so popular at the time of his death that his obituary was featured in the New York Times, the Time, and Ebony magazine. A spiritual recorded by Broonzy at his final session was played for the crowd at the funeral parlor. According to all the reporters for the Chicago newspapers, it was like “Big Bill Broonzy sang at his own funeral”, getting the last word about how his life and music career would be remembered. 

Broonzy is buried in the Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois. In 1980, he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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